This story wants to be a fireworks show, but it's only armed with half a box of matches.
When Lindsey Lohan gets pulled over for another DUI, few are surprised. When DMX gets slapped with another paternity suit, few are shocked. These are events that people have become numb to because it's seen as all too common. Whatever innocence or reputation there once was is now as distant a memory as Vanilla Ice's music career. Sometimes it's just a product of new competition and an inability to keep up. Other times, it's a product of tragedy that can act as a cautionary tale for future generations.
When Kurt Cobain said, "It's better to burn out than fade away," he might as well have hand-written a warning note to Ultimate Marvel. At a time when flip-phones dominated the cell phone market, Ultimate Marvel was the hottest brand in comics. It became the gold standard for an entire industry. The quality of any superhero comic had to be measured against books like the Ultimates, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Ultimate X-men.
These books set the bar. They established what a great superhero comic ought to be. Then, like MC Hammer's bank account, it suffered a devastating decline from which it did not recover. If Ultimate Marvel were a drug addict, it would've overdosed years ago.
Now, after three failed relaunches and a complete destruction of everything that made Ultimate Marvel relevant, this world that once set the gold standard for Marvel is set to end. Fittingly enough, it's two most recognizable names, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, act as the undertakers in its final issue. Ultimate End #5 is the last comic to carry the once-prominent Ultimate brand. But beyond being far more bitter than bittersweet, it fails once again to live up to that gold standard. In fact, it barely succeeds in living up to a copper standard.
Even as a tie-in for Secret Wars, Ultimate End as a whole only succeeds as a catalyst for putting Miles Morales in the mainline Marvel Universe, absent most of Ultimate Marvel's obscene amounts of baggage. This success really only comes in Ultimate End #5. The previous four issues contributed next to nothing in this effort. All they did was put a bunch of 616 and Ultimate characters in the same domain, watch them bicker for reasons that are never fully explained, and pretend there's a plot.
It's the same tactic Michael Bay uses in movies that involve Megan Fox. The only difference is that Bay movies make a boatload of money and are actually entertaining, at times. There's really not much entertainment value in Ultimate End. Other than Hawkeye getting deep-fried by Thor and Tony Stark literally arguing with himself, the story barely has the impact of a Simpsons rerun.
To this point, the 616 and Ultimate sides have just been bickering and arguing. It never feels sincere or dramatic. Every ounce of conflict in this story feels forced, as though there just had to be one last clash between 616 and Ultimate before Ultimate joined that big quarter bin in the sky. In addition to being forced, it's also rushed. If there's any chance at drama, it's glossed over in order to keep the conflict going. This story tries so hard to be a spectacle. It wants to be a fireworks show, but it's only armed with half a box of matches.
On top of the conflict being forced, the entire setup of Ultimate End was confusing and vague. There was no rhyme or reason as to how this particular group of 616 and Ultimate characters ended up in this segment of Battleworld. That made the conflict of the first four issues even more hollow. Ultimate End #5 finally offers an explanation of sorts, but it comes far too late to give the story any weight.
At the very least, the explanation offered in this story creates a solid connection with the overall narrative of Secret Wars. Miles Morales was one of the few survivors of the final incursion so he provided the catalyst for revealing the truth about this final Ultimate/616 conflict. That truth is still somewhat contrived. It basically amounts to a god-powered Dr. Doom taking a select group of 616 and Ultimate characters and throwing them into some random section of Battleworld the same way a kid throws a bunch of action figures in a microwave. It has only slightly more appeal than it sounds.
There's still a concerted effort on the part of Brian Michael Bendis to inject some dramatic weight into this moment. When both the Ultimate and 616 characters realize they're just melted bits of plastic in Dr. Doom's toy chest, it ends the meaningless conflict that has been unfolding for the past four issues. It just isn't in time for anyone to do much with it. If anything, it makes the first four issues of Ultimate End feel like one, prolonged missed opportunity.
Missed or not, the revelation triggers a montage of sorts that attempts to put the finality of the story into context. At the very least, it tries to focus on the happier times, absent the Ray Connors, the nerd Hulks, and the incest with the Maximoff twins. It does make for a solemn moment where we, the readers, are left to remember how rich and promising Ultimate once was. In doing so, however, it also reminds us just how drastically it declined as a whole. It's not just bittersweet. It's downright tragic.
Brian Michael Bendis can now say without reservation that he's the only Ultimate writer who resisted the urge to throw Ultimate Marvel into a blender. His work on Ultimate Spider-Man was the only sliver of the Ultimate universe that remained true to the overall themes of Ultimate Marvel. His efforts to remain true to those themes in Ultimate End are respectable. But like trying to make mullets a fashionable hair style again, his efforts can only go so far.
The ultimate tragedy of Ultimate End #5 is that it set goals that it had no chance of achieving. Like Homer Simpson attempting brain surgery, it was destined to get messy. It tried to encompass everything that once made Ultimate Marvel so appealing. It could only ever remind readers that this appeal ended years ago. Marvel just finally got around to making it official.